How can we turn the dream of home ownership into a reality for more people? There are three main ways. First, of course, is reforming the planning system. There should be a presumption to allow development provided it is beautiful – as encapsulated by local design codes with popular approval. The Green Belt should not be entirely exempt from this – but with the extra safeguard that it is applied to scuzzy wasteland in the Green Belt and that for each acre of ugly land turned into beautiful housing another couple of acres of ugly land be turned into beautiful forests, parks or nature reserves. Secondly, an exponential increase in sales of surplus public sector land. State landbanking in this country represents scandalously poor asset management causing great harm to the public finances as well as restricting the housing supply. Forced sales of empty municipal garages so they can be knocked down and replaced with rows of cottages is merely an example. Thirdly, a right to buy for housing association as well as council tenants with a greatly increased discount – including a “right to shared ownership” with a small equity stake for free in return for taking on responsibility for minor repairs.
Those measures would be a good start. But a recent article in The Economist persuaded me it would not be enough.
“Even when councils approve development, other outfits can stop it. Natural England was created in 2006 with the aim of protecting flora and fauna. After a European Court of Justice ruling in 2018, it was tasked with ensuring “nutrient neutrality”, meaning any development could not increase phosphate or nitrate pollution in rivers. Natural England came up with a blunt solution: building could not go ahead unless developers could prove it would not lead to an increase in nutrient levels, a stipulation that few could provide.
“The result was a near total freeze on house-building. Local politicians and developers, who had spent years in painful negotiations, were caught out. In total, about 14% of England’s land faced extra restrictions. One industry group argues that 120,000 houses were affected, or 40% of Britain’s annual housing target. Liz Truss, the likely next prime minister, has promised to scrap the requirement, but details are scant.
“Newts present as many problems as nutrients. Anyone who harms a great crested newt while building can be jailed for up to six months.”
It’s not just newts. There are also the bats:
“Bats are a nightmare for anyone renovating or developing (enterprising nimbys sometimes install bat boxes in order to attract them to a potential site). Protected under law, it is a crime to harm a bat or destroy its roost. A full report, which involves ecologists scouring a property with bat-hunting microphones plugged into iPhones, can cost £5,000 ($5,800).”
The Economist concluded:
“For a development of 350 houses in Staffordshire, a developer had to provide a statement of community involvement, a topographical survey, an archaeological report, an ecology appraisal, a newt survey, a bat survey, a barn owl survey, a geotechnical investigation to determine if the ground was contaminated, a landscape and visual impact assessment, a tree survey, a development framework plan, a transport statement, a design and access statement, a noise assessment, an air quality assessment, a flood risk assessment, a health impact assessment and an education impacts report. These are individually justifiable, yet collectively intolerable.”
Is it proportionate? Matt Ridley has pondered the bat question:
“Most bat species are not rare or declining, but it makes no difference. The whole system wastes money, time and goodwill towards bats (there are huge incentives to eliminate them surreptitiously) while doing very little to help to conserve rare species, and contributing massively to the desecration of our cultural heritage. But it is all highly lucrative for the bat people: building managers must order expensive bat inspections from the bat folk themselves before converting or repairing buildings.”
Ridley notes that while one arm of government, English Heritage, seeks to preserve cultural heritage, another, Natural England, enforces a directive that churches may not disturb bat roosts:
“Both demand the spending of money, which is thus circular. Church wardens complain of officious bullying by amateur and self-trained busybodies from the Bat Conservation Trust, to whom the task of enforcing the bat rules has been delegated by government.”
The ever growing number of bats is a menace for churches:
“Bat pee has damaged many of the brasses in British churches, and stained or eroded precious medieval monuments and paintings. Expensive restoration work is often undone in a matter of months by micturating bats.”
Ridley also has some thoughts on newts:
“Great crested newts are common. You find them in every part of England, as well as much of Wales and Scotland. They inhabit Northern Europe as far east as the Urals, but are scarcer on the continent, which is where these things are decided. (Yes, we are being punished for success again.) In 1994, Britain implemented a European directive defining great crested newts as a “European protected species” (EPS), meaning that you can go to prison for six months for harming them. This means, because they are so widespread, that housebuilders and other developers go to great lengths to ensure that any newt living on or near their development is excluded or rescued so that it is not run over by a bulldozer.”
Even from the point of view of the newts the current rules can be perverse:
“Suppose, Natural England says, that a minerals company wants to extend a quarry into what is now farmland, but the extension comes within 200 metres of a newt-infested pond. The pond will not be affected and the farmland is currently useless for newts, so what’s the problem? Indeed, the quarry extension will turn the farmland into something much more attractive to newts: with scattered ponds to breed in and heaps of rocks to hibernate in, so the newt population might rise despite the odd bulldozer accident. Yet if newts move in, the quarry owner faces a choice between going bust and going to jail. So he keeps them out.”
I am not saying that if Ministers decided on these rules with the advice of their civil servants that common sense would always prevail. But at least there would be accountability. There could be some sense of proportion where the competing needs of different policy objectives were balanced. Allowing some flexibility could allow better protection for endangered species and an enhancement of our natural environment without imposing absurd costs and delays on development.
It is not good enough for Ranil Jayawardena, the Environment Secretary, to shrug that the great harm done by Natural England is nothing to do with him. That its 2,263 staff with its £153 million budget should be allowed to meddle away to their heart’s content. He needs to take responsibility and abolish it.
It’s time to take back control.